Michael CrossEditorTuesday 13 September 2011

Privacy review sounds alarm on open data

The government's open data programme could pose threats to individual privacy unless immediate steps are taken, an independent review for the Cabinet Office warns today.

The review, entitled Transparent Government, Not Transparent Citizens, by Professor Kieron O'Hara of Southampton University, warns that the distinction between private and public data could be threatened by the government's proposed "right to data". It calls for privacy protection to be "embedded in any transparency programme, rather than bolted on as an afterthought".

O'Hara's overall conclusion is that: "Privacy and transparency are compatible, as long as the former is carefully protected and considered at every stage." However he raises several concerns that could provide ammunition to privacy campaigners.

One concern is the ability to identify individuals from anonymised data by so-called "jigsaw identification". O'Hara warns of a "potential clash" between the transparency agenda and a growing technical consensus for access controls on anomymised data. "There are no coplete legal or technical fixes to the deanonymisation problem" and that "It is essential that policymakers, data managers, data controllers, privacy officers and lawyers do not automatically assume that anonymised' data cannot be used to reidentify people." Further studies are needed, he says.

Among the 14 recommendations in O'Hara's report is a call for privacy interests to be represented on the government's Transparency Board. This might be achieved by including the Information Commissioner on the board.

The Cabinet Office's response to the O'Hara report seems to be to play it down. A high-placed source said that it does not represent government policy and will be treated as one response to the ongoing consutation into open data. The outcomes of the consultation will be refected in a white paper due for publication in February 2012.